Employer and government sponsored migrants will be given top priority over other skilled migrants in widespread changes to the General Skilled Migration (GSM) program announced on 8 February 2010. Consideration will also be given to developing a system whereby visa applicants put forward their claims and are then selected as candidates by either employers, a State or Territory government or by the Commonwealth.

Announcing widespread changes to the GSM program, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, emphasised the need to refocus the rules for entry towards a demand driven program which:

  • meets Australia's short term skill needs by giving priority to skilled migrants applying under the Employer Nomination Scheme (ENS) and to applicants who are sponsored under yet to be developed State and Territory migration plans;
  • addresses longer term skill needs by rebalancing the list of skilled occupations under which skilled migrants can apply for GSM visas; and
  • reviews the composition and weighting of the points test and alternative ways of selecting the best candidates.

The GSM program provides a mechanism for people who are not sponsored by an employer to obtain permanent residence in Australia. It currently involves passing a points test which allocates points in varying degrees for factors such as occupational skill, English language ability, work experience, State, Territory or relative sponsorship and study in Australia. The GSM program has been a significant driver in the growth of overseas student education, particularly vocational education, as it gives high points to a wide range of trade occupations, thereby providing those students with better opportunities to remain permanently in Australia.

Demand versus supply

A major criticism of the current GSM program is that it is supply driven and not responsive to the demands of Australia's short or long term skill shortages. To address this, the intended changes distinguish between selection mechanisms to fill short and long term skill shortages, and include:

  • removing (with immediate effect) the Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL) which gave bonus points to GSM applicants who had recognised skills in certain 'demand' occupations. The MODL was developed to address Australia's shorter term skill needs, but many of the migrants who were granted GSM visas on the basis of MODL occupations have subsequently been found not to be working in those occupations. Therefore short term skill shortages are to be met by giving priority to applicants who are employer and State or Territory government sponsored;
  • introducing a more targeted 'skilled occupations list' (SOL) for which GSM applicants will need to demonstrate they have the necessary qualifications. This list will be developed by Skills Australia and is intended to identify longer term skill shortage needs. The list will be made available at the end of April, for implementation mid-2010. The expectation is that not only will certain occupations be removed from the list, but that there will be a significant rebalancing of the points allocated to each occupation, giving higher points to more sought after occupations and downgrading others such as hairdressing, cookery and possibly accounting;
  • reviewing the overall composition and balance of the points test, including the points given for age, English, qualifications and work experience. A discussion paper will shortly be released but it is not clear when any changes will be implemented;
  • examining the feasibility of a system of selection where applicants put forward their claims for consideration and selection by employers, State and Territory governments and the Commonwealth. State and Territory governments have been asked to develop Migration Plans to identify particular skill needs;
  • giving greater priority to GSM applicants who are sponsored by an employer or government to fill immediate and short term skill needs. The ENS allows Australian employers to nominate someone for a permanent visa, and makes up 53% of the total skilled migrant intake. Applicants can convert their GSM application to an ENS application if they find an employer willing to nominate them, and their applications will then be prioritised - a significant advantage given current processing times are up to three years. The greater the number of ENS visas granted, the fewer visas will be available for un-sponsored GSM applicants;
  • capping and ceasing all GSM applications made by applicants offshore before 1 September 2007. Approximately 20,000 applicants will have their application fee refunded and their applications will be deemed 'not to have been made'; and
  • allowing the Minister to limit the number of visas that can be granted to applicants in any one occupation. Currently capping powers only allow the Minister to limit further visa grants to an entire visa category.

Conclusion

The changes announced on 8 February provide a broad direction of future selection methodologies for skilled migration, but details are still being developed. They leave many questions unanswered for existing applicants already in the pipeline as well as for those wanting to lodge an application before the new rules are introduced. For example:

  • Will existing applicants in the pipeline have the new rules applied retrospectively if their application has not been decided when those rules come into force?
  • If existing applications continue to be assessed under the 'old rules' will those applicants be disadvantaged through longer processing times as priority is given to applications under the new rules which better meet the skill shortage objectives?
  • How will new applicants applying before the introduction of the new SOL mid-year be affected if their occupation is no longer on the new SOL or is downgraded?

These and other questions mean a great deal of uncertainty will remain until the laws giving effect to these announcements are made available, which is not expected for some time. Intending applicants should seek advice as to their options prior to lodging any GSM application. We will provide further information on the changes as and when they become available.